For the past year, lion cages and tiger enclosures—home to a dozen or so cats—have been the source of low-level psychic torture for residents of Grand Bend, Ontario. Now, the cages are empty; all quiet on the Huron lakefront.
Last winter, I wrote a feature for Maisonneuve about Mark Drysdale and his wife Tammy, who arrived in Grand Bend in March 2019 with a small zoo in tow. The couple moved their animals (among them: Savannah and Alex, lions; Princess, a zebra; Khaleesi, a lynx; and Frank da Tank, a tortoise) onto the property of the former Pinecrest Zoo, just south of the town’s main intersection. Locals weren’t happy, to say the least. And the town government—which suddenly became glaringly aware that it lacked an exotic pet bylaw which could prevent this from happening—was none too pleased, either.
The town hastily drafted and passed a bylaw in April 2019 intending to force the Drysdales to close the roadside zoo. It was done not quite secretly, per se, but with about as much democratic transparency as wax paper. Townsfolk and neighbours organized against the Drysdales and their supporters, with each side threatening and peddling cheap gossip at the other as the conflict grew bitter. I made my last visit to the zoo over Labour Day weekend. By the time I returned to Grand Bend some weeks later, the zoo was closed to guests. I thought to myself: Stick a fork in it; it’s done. But while the zoo was no longer public, the story wasn’t yet resolved: a challenge contesting the new bylaw was still heading to court.
Eventually, the town got its way. The municipality of Lambton Shores won a permanent injunction against the zoo in January, with the judge ruling that the town had not specifically targeted the Drysdales with its bylaw outlawing exotic pets within town limits. The decision meant the Drysdales had to remove the animals by June 2nd, or risk having them taken away and potentially euthanized. “I won’t abandon my family,” Drysdale told the local paper in February. “We will not be without our animals.” And so the Drysdales embarked on a frenzied search for somewhere to park the cats. “We have honestly drove [sic] from pretty much from Manitoba to all of Quebec because you got to remember every province has different laws,” they told CTV News.
By June, as the town was gearing up for an unusual summer season, the animals were gone. The obvious question, Where to? is a matter of great speculation among neighbours, who are more than a little skeptical of the Drysdales’ official narrative that the lions are somewhere far away, out of sight and out of mind for Grand Bend residents. The speculation—all unfounded—goes something like this: Could they be stashing them nearby? Have they been killed? What about that mystery exotic animal collector up North? (For the record, neither Mark nor Tammy responded to my requests for comment.)
Maybe it doesn’t matter, really, where the animals went. The story has never just been about the lions and tigers. As long as Mark Drysdale’s around, it will also be the story of an outsider, a strange and often abrasive man who never really fit in with the locals, in a place where locals care a great deal about that sort of thing. Not that he seems to be trying all that much. It’s hard to ingratiate yourself with your neighbours when you stomp into town with a zoo in tow, lock horns with town officials, neighbours and the local media and, lately, drive around in a bright orange Jeep Wrangler with the words “BRING BACK THE CATS” printed beneath an awfully menacing claw print.
And yet, before anyone at the Lambton Shores town hall could say Tiger Free Since June Three!, history started repeating itself. Another couple, Brandon Vanderwel and Destiny Duncan, appeared before town council in the neighbouring municipality of South Huron to ask for a property exemption for their own two lions, Pride and Joy. The pair hoped to move their cats into a secluded plot of land in town (South Huron, just a twenty-minute drive from Grand Bend, falls outside of the jurisdiction of Lambton Shores). Vanderwel said he was inspired to adopt lions after visiting the Drysdales’ Roaring Cat Retreat—a great plot twist, in any case.
So it all began again: the letters to council, the testimonies of zoo experts, the accusations. Mark, of course, weighed in with a Facebook post: “We will not state whether or not these two cats are being housed with mine or will we make it known where ours are currently being housed,” he wrote. Despite the new owners presenting a detailed plan for the lions, and even gaining some support among local councillors, South Huron—in what was likely a moment of forethought—voted down the proposal to bring the cats to town.
Nevertheless, for a moment, it all felt like all the work Grand Bend put into de-lion-ing itself was in vain. Like a giant game of whack-a-mole, but with real life lions. Privately, a part of me rooted for the lion owners and the absurdity they represented, especially since absurdity feels as constant a state as you can ask for these days.
But this chapter seems to be ending the way everything does in Grand Bend: by gently fading off into memory and drifting out of mind. Eventually, the year-long fight will be nothing but part of local oral tradition, the story people tell about the old Grand Bend times, alongside the waterslide or the mini-golf hole that always ate your ball. By July, the cats were gone, the sunshine was getting brighter, and the season’s punch-drunk summer vibe was setting in. Summer was out there waiting, and pretty soon there would be, as always, other fish to fry.